The DVD-Rom anarchive 2: Digital Snow
was co-produced in 2002 by the Daniel Langlois Foundation and Époxy Communications. From June 2011 to February 2012, with permission from Michael Snow and Anne-Marie Duguet (anarchive
), the Daniel Langlois Foundation has transposed Digital Snow
to the Web: www.fondation-langlois.org/digital-snow
An introduction to Digital Snow by Elizabeth Legge
Any given work by Michael Snow work implies an acutely framed question of some kind: about its own properties, about the way different technologies affect what we perceive, about the conventions and expectations that influence our responses, about the nature of seeing in relation to the other senses and bodily movement, and about the nature of our existence and operations in the world altogether. His work often has a deftly equivocal aspect: it may seem lyrical, scientific, sensuous, coolly rigorous, and humorous, or all of these at once. This project, Digital Snow
, is what Snow calls an encyclopaedia of his work of the past six decades. It is not organized by chronology or by the many different visual and sound media in which he works, but rather by the core “principles” that motivate his explorations. It presents eighty-four key works that illustrate these disparate principles, which are not homologous, but include an array of media, techniques, entities, and properties.
Snow is alert to the specificities and possibilities of digital reproduction. In Digital Snow
we are given excerpts of films and samples of work that can cue us to certain aspects of the material, while being clear that no work can be fully recreated by such reproduction. Snow has had to make careful decisions about which of his films could withstand transfer to digital media without loss of their properties. As one example: while resistant to the idea of transferring his iconic forty-five minute film Wavelength
(1967) to DVD – since its being a film
is integral to its meanings – Snow came up with a way that it could be done. His solution was a simple gesture with complex perceptual consequences. He divided Wavelength
into three equal fifteen-minute segments, which were then superimposed as a fifteen-minute DVD, WVLNT (or Wavelength for Those Who Don't Have the Time
(2003), as if the temporality of the film were metaphorically folded over to fit the compressed space of a DVD. Where in Wavelength
a long zoom moves into a long room accompanied by a rising sine wave, in WVLNT
it is as if three transparent rooms and their sounds were nested inside one another; here and now, then and there, if and when. The WVLNT
“move” – cutting Wavelength
into thirds – might seem like its entire point, as if a one-liner; but that concise wit expands into an entirely new evocation of hallucinatory memory.
Snow’s folding in WVLNT
has to do not only with the transfer of one medium to another, film to digital, but also with reworking any notion of narrative as linear and tending to a predetermined ending. In Digital Snow
, under the principles “book” and “recto-verso” Snow demonstrates his ferociously complex textless book Cover to Cover
, a tale “told” by photographs. In it, on the most simple level, Snow is shown leaving his house, driving to his gallery, and, once there, looking at Cover to Cover
. Effectively, the narrative capsizes the end into the beginning – we begin and end with a photograph of a door – but, of course, it will not be the same book the second time through because we now have a prior experience of it. We could think of Cover to Cover
as Snow’s intervention in a history of thinking about time, narrative, causality, and mortality: which might include Nietzsche’s “eternal return,” or Paul Ricœur’s account of the way repetition of a story fatally topples cause and effect (1)
, or Jean-Louis Baudry’s proposal of a new "object-book" that would be a spatial grid with no beginning and no end (2)
. Whatever its philosophical reach, Cover to Cover
is full of very funny set pieces, looping digressions, visual paradoxes and play with photograph illusions. The photographed hands of the artist keep cropping up in the book as if reformatting it, or forcibly returning us to earlier incidents, as if his operations were interfering with our own turning of the pages. We are made aware of the book as a book, that is, as an object made of two-sided pages bound together between two covers conveying photographs that oblige us literally to turn it around and upside down in our hands, and figuratively to turn received ideas on their head.
Another principle, “language,” has been a particular stimulus to Snow’s engagement with the ways prior experience and received knowledge affect our perceptions. His film Rameau’s Nephew by Diderot (thanx to Dennis Young) by Wilma Schoen
(1974) engages philosophical, psycholinguistic and semiotic theories as brought to bear on the origin and varieties of language, from sound to music to colour to gesture, as affected by technologies of recording that include the film itself, and it cannot be given a short account. With Diderot
, however, Snow proposes the many ways that language frames and constrains what we can think or remember or desire. In other works Snow has dealt with a specific feature of language, which has to do with the way words such as “this” or “that” point to something outside language in order to make sense. These “deictic” or “shifter” words are treated in Snow’s very funny film So Is This
(1982), in which solitary words appear one at a time, as the film silently talks about itself to “you” (another shifter word) the viewer. “This,” it begins with a comically magisterial obviousness, “is the title of this.” In his gallery installation That/Cela/Dat
(2000), Snow returns to this brilliant device, now directed toward trying to hold the attention of a peripatetic viewer by provoking self-consciousness (“reading while standing is unusual, isn't it?”) or by shamelessly pointing out that someone cute has just entered the exhibition. In the segment of That/Cela/Dat
included in Digital Snow
, the installation advises the viewer:
If you turn your back on this, it will still be here. When you are looking at other things, it will still be here, hoping that you will come back to it. When you are away from this, in your memory, it will become that.
The voice of this disembodied narration taps into the fundamental philosophical question of whether things continue to exist when we are not there to perceive them, a thought that is troubling and consoling at the same time. Snow’s simple declarative statements constitute a remarkable poetry that poignantly expresses our wish to believe that our vantage point is central to the scheme of things, while pointing to our inevitable evanescence over the course of time that turns every “this” into a “that.”
Snow’s gift for working through big philosophical questions with lyricism and humour comes out in another key work which appears under the principles “object” and “surface,” Conception of Light
(1992). Two circular photographs of the irises of a brown eye and a blue eye, enlarged to six feet across, like a giant synecdoche of the whole person, face one another on opposite walls. At that scale the eyes’ strangely patterned fronds and flecks of colour could be a spiral galaxy or waterweeds in a scintillating pond. It is impossible to look at both eyes at the same time: we have to turn to one side and then the other, as if we were interrupting their locked gaze, or as if we were trapped in it, or as if, finally, they are looking at us. With that recognition we enter the austere and troubling field of the theorized gaze, as if moving from the sensuous appeal of the richly coloured irises into the black hole of the pupil. This may be the theoretical domain of an intense psychoanalytic and philosophical history that includes Sartre and Lacan, that tells us that although we think we master what we see, yet we do not master what sees us. Conception of Light
brings home the fact that these giant eyes both stare at us and are blind to us. As we look at them, they hover between beauty and the monstrously cyclopean. With respect to this Conception of Light
might equally be an allusion to the film-maker Jean Epstein who had written of the overwhelming intimacy of the cinematic close-up:
One can't evade an iris. Round about, blackness: nothing to attract one's attention. This is a cyclopean art, a unisensual art, an iconoscopic retina. All life and attention are in the eye. (3)
The eyes then are – of course – about the devices of art that impel certain kinds of seeing. Snow has written that the blue eye, his own eye, is “colder, cosmic, electrical,” while the “orange” eye is “warmer, organic, undersea, floral.” Here, the cold eye with the electrical force-field of the detached creator meets its sensuous and immediate other, finds its happy immersion in phenomenological experience of the world. This compression of the perceptually expansive within the concisely and intellectually considered, to the intensification of each, plays through all of Snow’s work.
Elizabeth Legge © 2012 FDL
Dr. Elizabeth Legge
is an art historian and curator, and is currently Chair of the Department of Art at the University of Toronto. She has written on Dada, Surrealism, and contemporary Canadian and British art. She is completing a book on Michael Snow's work, for which she has been awarded an SSHRC research grant.
About the original DVD-Rom edition: Original credits (2002)
Comments welcome: info @ fondation-langlois.org